College students, like most adults, should get the recommended 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night to perform at peak levels. In fact, sufficient rest may be even more critical for students since they are functioning in an environment fraught with stress, are facing a host of new and challenging circumstances, and bear the weight of parental expectations that they perform well academically. Knowing as we do that sleep is a vital indicator of overall health and that it contributes significantly to scholastic performance, what is the impact when students fail to sleep well?
Unfortunately, it appears that where students are concerned, science sets them up for sleep-related challenges from the start. We all have an “internal clock” that regulates sleep/wake cycles and governs hormonal secretions. We also have circadian rhythms that increase the sleep drive as our periods of wakefulness get longer. These physiological processes seem to peak during and just after puberty, meaning most young adults entering college naturally feel more awake in the evening and have difficulty falling asleep until much later at night, a process known as delayed sleep phase.
In studies done at various colleges, students averaged only 5.7 hours of sleep per night and confessed to 2-3 all-nighters per month. In addition to self-inflicted sleep deprivation, studies also suggest that as many as 27% of college students are at risk for at least one clinical sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy.
Studies also found that:
- 73% of college reports report sleep problems.
- 82% of them believe that too little sleep and sleepiness impact their school performance.
- They rank sleep problems second only to stress in factors that negatively impact academics.
What can we do to help young adults who are pursuing an education deal appropriately with the causes of sleep deprivation and get consistent, quality sleep?
Why is sleep so important for college students?
While there is not yet a full body of evidence confirming a direct link between lack of sleep and GPA, multiple studies associate sleep deprivation with poor scholastic performance. Given the cost and time investment of a college education, this is concerning for both students and parents.
Sleep is essential not only to overall health but to cognitive ability. Lack of it negatively impacts our concentration, memory, mood, energy levels, body weight, good judgment, reaction time, and the ability to learn. When an adequate amount of sleep is achieved every night, we not only feel better, but we perform better.
How realistic is it, though, to expect a college student to get a full 8 hours of sleep each night? After all, college is an extremely unique life experience. Suddenly, these young adults have complete control over their schedule and may be tempted to overdo it in their social lives. They are also on the receiving end of heavy peer pressure, especially if they go Greek and participate in a fraternity or sorority where late nights and lack of sleep seem to be a way of life.
Levels of homework, class projects and reading assignments that are much heavier than those in high school also cause students to pull all-nighters to keep up (nights during which they get NO sleep in order to prepare for the next day of class or for tests).
Consequences of sleep loss
Though getting adequate sleep in college is a real challenge, a balance must be found between having a great college experience and not compromising on rest. If balance is absent, the consequences can be severe.
Physical manifestations of sleep loss
- Compromised/lowered immune systems that put us at risk for more colds, flu, and other illnesses.
- Increased weight gain (even above the famed “freshman fifteen”!) and obesity.
- Higher numbers of automobile accidents from driving while drowsy.
- Decreased coordination and athletic performance.
Academic manifestations of sleep loss
- More difficulty retaining information.
- Decreased classroom alertness.
- Diminished ability to recall information.
- Lower test scores.
- Lower overall GPA.
Emotional manifestations of sleep loss
- Feeling more stressed out.
- Feeling unable to cope with the demands of college life.
- Experiencing episodes of anxiety.
- Being more susceptible to drug use and addiction.
Connections between sleep and mental illness in college students
Because inadequate sleep can also lead to emotional changes, the relationship between sleep and mental illness runs deep. In addition to the day-to-day consequences of sleep deprivation noted above, lack of sleep is also directly connected to the following mental illnesses which are increasingly prevalent among college students.
In relation to anxiety and sleeplessness, we are up against a double-edged sword since lack of sleep contributes to anxiety and, in turn, anxiety prevents sleep, resulting in a vicious cycle. The natural reaction among college students to a new environment, new challenges, new responsibilities, and new freedoms is to experience some anxiety. So, the risk is high that their already-diminished amounts of sleep also become poor quality sleep.
See our guide to Anxiety and Sleep to learn more.
Researchers and doctors have proven that when we do not get enough sleep or when we suffer from insomnia, we have higher levels of depression than people who sleep well. In fact, studies have found that people who are sleep-deprived are 5 times more likely to develop depression and that 15 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with insomnia will develop major depression. This puts college students at higher risk for depression.
Insomnia or lack of sleep is a proven risk factor for suicide across all age groups, but it particularly impacts young adults. According to the CDC, suicide is highest among people aged 15-34. They also note that 8% of full-time college students and other adults in the college age group have suicidal thoughts with the majority of those preparing a suicide plan. And studies performed at Georgia Health Sciences University found that people with insomnia are up to twice as likely to commit suicide as people who sleep well.
According to experts at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, sleep deprivation may play a notable role in a young person’s susceptibility to first using alcohol and drugs and can then contribute to full-blown addiction. Lack of sleep and sleep disorders often lead to increased use of caffeine and other stimulants like energy drinks. These may seem harmless in reasonable quantities, but according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, citing the Journal of Adolescent Health, energy drinks are linked to increased use and abuse of marijuana, alcohol, and prescription drugs.
ADHD is known to contribute to higher rates of daytime sleepiness with as many as 50% of ADHD patients experiencing it. If a college student has a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms can be multiplied profoundly by the sleep deprivation they may experience as a natural part of college life.
The number of Americans suffering from chronic, long-term sleep disorders has grown to more than 70 million and the percentage of college students in this total is rising. The impact of this staggering health crisis is personal – affecting relationships, driving, work, and social activities – and it is economic. Sleep disorders represent an estimated $16 billion in medical costs each year.
Recognizing and properly diagnosing sleep disorders is the first step to treating them properly. The key warning signs of a sleep disorder are:
- Still feeling tired and groggy after waking.
- Nodding off during the day.
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for at least a month.
The four most common sleep disorders among individuals who have been formally diagnosed are:
Insomnia manifests itself in the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) results in painful or unpleasant sensations in the lower extremities such as crawling skin or tingling which cause the legs to move and jerk throughout sleep.
For more information on sleep disorders, see our guide to Sleep Disorders.
FAQs about sleep from college students
Why do we even need sleep?
Sleep may seem passive but it plays a key role in overall health. It helps our bodies fight off illness, strengthens our immune systems, allows for regeneration of cells, helps us think clearly, improves memory, and restores energy.
How much sleep do we need?
Sleep requirements vary from individual to individual, but most adults need 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night.
Does lack of sleep impact my grades?
It does. The ability to concentrate, recall information for tests, remain alert and absorb information – all crucial to good grades – is diminished when you get too little sleep. Research now shows that students who get 6 hours or less of sleep each night have a lower GPA than students who get 8 or more hours.
Source: Pepperdine University
How does drinking alcohol affect sleep?
Drinking alcohol before going to bed will absolutely disrupt your sleep. It may make you drowsy and help you fall asleep initially, but the sleep you get after drinking will not be quality sleep.
What about varying amounts of alcohol? Do casual drinking and binge drinking have the same effect?
Yes. And binge drinking can also result in a long-term inability to fall asleep.
My friends regularly pull all-nighters and seem just fine. Is it really that bad for you?
Sadly, what is viewed as a study strategy can actually be harmful to your health. Frequent all-nighters contribute over time to weight gain, digestive problems, and insomnia. In the short term, you’ll also have difficulty focusing and retaining information.
How should I time my studying? Is it best to study right before bed, a few hours before, or right when I wake up?
Sleep is absolutely tied to learning. If you want to get new information to stick in your brain, research shows that a good night’s sleep shortly after studying has a significant impact on your ability to retain information.
Does napping have any effect?
It’s best to limit napping. While researchers have found that taking a short nap the day of a test can help you recall information a few hours later, frequent napping can actually make it harder to fall asleep at night and will diminish the overall quality of your sleep.
Is there a problem falling asleep on the sofa watching television instead of falling asleep in bed?
Yes. Your bed should be the only place you sleep. If you find that you sleep better on the sofa, check your mattress to make sure it’s in good shape.
Does the mattress really affect how a person sleeps?
Your mattress can be friend or foe when it comes to bedtime and plays a key role in how you feel when you wake up. If you toss and turn at night or wake up stiff and achy, your mattress could be at fault.
Can I make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping in on weekends?
Making up for lost sleep is not possible. A “sleep debt” is created when you don’t get enough sleep and the only way to reduce or eliminate it is to sleep as much as you need every night.
How to set up a sleep routine
Sleep comprises 1/3 of our lives if we’re getting enough of it. And the quality of our sleep directly impacts how good we feel and how successful we are in the other 2/3 of our lives.
To understand the importance of getting enough shut eye, it helps to know the basics about the 5 stages of sleep or sleep cycles. After the onset of sleep in Stages 1 and 2, some very important things begin to happen in Stages 3 and 4. Collectively, these 4 stages are called NREM sleep and make up 75% of the night while Stage 5, called REM sleep, accounts for the other 25% of the night.
Stage 1 (NREM)
- This is the time between being awake and falling asleep.
Stage 2 (NREM)
- Sleep begins.
- We disengage from our surroundings.
- Body temp drops.
Stages 3 and 4 (NREM)
- Breathing and heart rate slow down.
- Muscles relax.
- Tissue is repaired and grown.
- Energy levels are restored.
- Essential hormones are released.
Stage 5 (REM)
- Recurs every 90 minutes or so throughout the night.
- The brain is active and dreams occur.
- Muscles are turned off.
- Energy goes to our brains and bodies.
To ensure that our sleep cycles are not interrupted – especially the all-important Stages 3 – 5 when our bodies repair and regenerate – experts suggest constructing a sleep routine like the one below. Establishing a routine around sleep is particularly important in the college environment.
1. Create a sleep diary.
Determine how much sleep your body requires.
a. For one week, do not set an alarm. Wake up naturally (not easy when you’re in college, but try it during a break).
b. Each morning, write down how many hours you slept.
c. At the end of the week, average the hours to get a good idea of the amount of sleep you need.
d. Commit to getting this amount of sleep as often as possible.
2. Eat healthy.
Eat regularly, have meals that include protein, vegetables and fiber, don’t binge, and avoid heavy meals at bedtime.
Being active during the day achieves longer periods of deep sleep and minimizes awakenings at night. It’s best, however, to avoid exercising right before bedtime.
4. Limit alcohol/nicotine/caffeine before bed.
All of these increase the likelihood of insomnia and disruptions in your sleep.
5. Avoid frequent napping.
The occasional “power nap” before a midterm may pay off in recall ability, but it’s best to avoid frequent napping since this diminishes natural sleep patterns.
6. Turn off electronics.
Not only are they a distraction from falling asleep but TVs, computers and other blue-light sources keep the brain active, impairing its ability to slow down and prepare for sleep. Turn them off an hour before bedtime.
7. Minimize sleep disruptions.
Noise diminishes the quality of sleep. Coordinate a schedule with roommates that defines quiet times, accounts for different schedules, and limits late night parties.
8. Avoid using your bedroom for a myriad of activities.
Our brains learn what to do in various rooms in our homes or dorms. If you use your bedroom for a variety of activities, just walking into it wakes up your brain because it associates that room with mental alertness. Experts say you should reserve the bedroom for sleep or sex only.
9. Establish a regular schedule of sleep.
While this is especially difficult in college, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
10. Select the right mattress.
The mattress matters. If yours is too thin, too soft, too firm or too small, it will impact the quality of your sleep. Find one that is supportive but comfortable and as roomy as possible.
Top 10 sleep tips for college students
With all the research now available on how lack of sleep can negatively impact us, including scholastic performance, it is essential that getting the right amount of quality sleep is a high priority especially in college.
The Top 10 Sleep Tips for College Students below are what we found to be the very best sleeping tips for college students. They are simple, essentially cost-free, and highly effective.
1. Eat regular healthy meals but not right before bedtime.
2. Exercise every day.
3. Abstain from alcohol, smoking, and caffeine before bed.
4. Power down computers and TVs at bedtime.
5. Block the clock and other light sources that have to stay on.
6. Kill the noise and use earplugs if you have to.
7. Get cozy by using room-darkening shades, fans, or body pillows.
8. S’s only – reserve the bedroom for sleeping or sex, nothing else.
9. Same time/same place – go to bed at the same time every night.
10. Set limits for pets, as they can disrupt sleep; limit when Fido and Fluffy are allowed to sleep with you.
As the folks at the University of Georgia Health Center like to say – “SLEEP ROCKS!” Take the Top 10 Sleep Tips for College Students to heart and commit to making sleep a priority. Incorporating these practices into your routine now will serve you well in college and ensure restful, quality sleep throughout life!
Sleep resources for college students
The resources below provide additional information related to:
- The science and study of sleep
- The most common sleep disorders and how to identify them
- Where to go to get help with general sleep problems
- Stress management or mental health issues
- The best choices among sleep products including mattresses, pillows, and more
Sleep facts and studies
- Fact Slides is a website that presents an endless stream of facts in slide format. Information is updated daily and all facts are well-verified with credible sources cited.
- College View is an online community for college students that has articles and information on everything from financial aid to pulling all-nighters.
- As two of the premiere medical institutions in the country, both Harvard and Cleveland Clinic are always great sources of information for students about any medical condition or concern.
- If you have or believe you have a sleep disorder, you can get more information and find where to seek medical help at the National Sleep Foundation.
- Sleep Education is an online resource provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine where you can find endless sleep health information.
- WebMD is also a great place to visit online to gather information about sleep disorders or other health concerns.
- And see our guide to Sleep Disorders.
Stress relief resources
- Eat Fit Health is a nutrition and health counseling resource with a wide variety of information about stress relief.
- For learning more about the causes of stress and to get great tips about relieving stress that are homeopathic and all-natural, visit Stress Relief Resources.
- Another resource that is natural in its focus, is Natural Stress Relief Guide, which offers stress relief methods like herbal stress relief, music, games and yoga.
- Only Healthy provides comprehensive resources and helpful tips for healthy living and healthcare-related issues including stress.
Mental health resources
- Active Minds is a non-profit organization founded by a college student which has grown into a key influencer in the conversation about mental health on a national level. They offer a large number of resources for college students including their own suicide hotline.
- The non-profit Relief Resources provides a myriad of mental health resources, as well as a database of qualified mental health providers.
- ULifeline offers mental health resources created just for college students.
- Accredited Schools Online provides an entire library of resources to promote student mental health.
Where to go for help
- While a great resource for sleep disorder facts and information, the National Sleep Foundation also hosts a vibrant online community for those with sleep disorders.
- Help Guide is a source of informative guides on all health issues, including sleep disorders and sleep loss.
- While a wonderful source of information about specific health issues, WebMD can also provide many resources for help and treatment.